Thursday, October 09, 2008

WAR ZONE: Group finds soldiers returning to Bush go it alone.


Published: October 9th, 2008 12:16 AM
Last Modified: October 9th, 2008 04:09 PM

Alaska Army National Guard troops returning home to rural communities after year-long deployments to war zones face huge obstacles trying to receive standard veterans' health care, according to a report by Veterans for America.

That's because about 25 percent of Alaska's Guard members live in villages where no veteran health clinics are available, and they often have to travel long distances by plane to see a doctor, the national veterans advocacy organization reported.

But that's just one of several problems now facing Alaskans who were part of the U.S.-wide call to send Army National Guard troops into battle, according to the year-long study.

Job prospects for troops returning to villages are sometimes grim. And screening for mental health problems is still lacking for the 575 soldiers in the 3rd Battalion, 297th Regiment, who spent a year in northern Kuwait and southern Iraq from 2006 to 2007.

"VFA was told that the 3rd Battalion experienced a dramatic rise in divorces, suicides, financial difficulties and other problems post-combat," the report states.

In its preliminary form, the study recommends that Gov. Sarah Palin launch a comprehensive study of whether the Alaska National Guard troops' post-deployment needs are being met, and it urges the United States to stop deploying the Alaska National Guard overseas "until this situation is remedied."

Veterans for America is a descendant of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, founded in 1978, and describes itself as an advocacy and humanitarian organization.

Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs commissioner Craig Campbell, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, declined to be interviewed about the study until Veterans for America publishes its final report.

In a press release, however, his department objected to the recommendation that the Army Guard delay deployments until the state can adequately care for returning soldiers.

"Our soldiers are highly trained, motivated individuals that meet each deployment, whether home or abroad, with enthusiasm, determination and success," the release said.

It also questioned the accuracy of the study, charging that it "does not appear to be comprehensive or scientific."

The press release doesn't specify any inaccuracies, but it cites several National Guard initiatives supported by the governor -- from a new law to waive Alaska hunting and fishing license fees for Guard members to advocating increased educational benefits for veterans.

"The Alaska Army National Guard is constantly working with its soldiers, families and organizations, such as Veterans Affairs, to ensure the highest level of services and care are provided," Campbell said in the statement.

"We're disappointed that their first response was so defensive," said Jason Forrester, co-director of the Veterans for America National Guard program, speaking by telephone from the group's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"A more constructive response would have been to admit that there are great challenges in properly caring for troops once they come home from combat."

About a year of research and a recent 10-day fact-finding mission in Alaska went into the study, Forrester said. During the field trip three staff members conducted interviews with Guard members in Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, Mat-Su, Bethel and Kwethluk. It found that "the post-deployment challenges facing the Alaska National Guard are more daunting and widespread than any seen by Veterans for America's National Guard program."

Several criticisms cited in the report are anecdotal. For example, the study noted that Guard members in rural Alaska are sometimes reluctant to seek health care due to the up-front costs of the travel.

"For Guard members living in remote villages, it can cost over $1,500 to travel to Anchorage for appointments," the study says. "VA will reimburse this money; however the soldiers need to pay up-front. In Bethel, Alaskan Native elders and local VSOs (veteran service organizations) had to pay for their travel and lodging."

Arguing that the study isn't comprehensive or scientific is "exactly the point" of its chief recommendation, calling for the Palin administration to launch a scientific and comprehensive study of its own, Forrester said.

"Alaska is going to have a $6 billion state surplus next year," he said. "And if the Alaska National Guard is not taken care of in a situation like that, then shame on them."